Category Archives: Fitness

It’s about skills

I think I was 7 when I first tried riding a real bicycle – you know, the one without the balancing wheels and baguette basket. I spent most of my childhood being a short kid and then I grew up to become a short adult. So I clearly remember a friend helping me climb on the machine before I pushed the pedal, experienced a magical moment of lightness and then fell face down. Little did I know that the face plant was the start of a journey. An incredible journey that will have challenged my idea of movement, distances and independence.

The process of learning this simple act of moving through three dimensional space by merely pressing on a pedal was the foundation of so many things. It taught me balance, pace and focus. I experienced for the first time that amazing feeling of speed. It made distances seem plausible. It made transport more time efficient. It ended my limited world view of just a few meters and made me look further. It made me independent. It opened up a whole new world.

That’s the beauty of learning skills. Every time you learn a skill you add another tool to your toolbox and a new perspective towards life is created. You are now capable of more. Impossible tasks now seem possible. More of the world applies to you and new interests and opportunities present themselves.

Bodily movements work the same way. Every movement is a skill and needs to be treated as a skill. You need to learn the skill before you start using the skill to help you in life. The squat, which is the most fundamental movement there is, is the most basic and important skill you can learn. Once you have mastered this skill, you can move on to bigger and better things. But first, you need to master the squat. The hinge isn’t any different. You need to learn to hinge properly, and by that I mean activating the appropriate muscle groups, tempo, breathing, stability etc., before you start using the hinge in movements like the kettlebell swing, barbell deadlift, broad jump, barbell clean and snatch.

Adarsh and Chezhiyan can squat and hinge a truck but they took their time to learn the basics.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case with any movement in any activity whatsoever. Be it the pushup or the cover drive or the forehand volley or even, running. It is absolutely critical to learn to do the movement well first before you start using the movement in life – to help you lose fat or get stronger or strike the ball faster or whatever it is that you’re looking for.

But here’s the deal – failures and mistakes are a part of learning.

You will  inevitably fail in almost each progressive step and that’s OK! The failures are what makes the process educational. If you remember, learning to ride a bicycle wasn’t easy or eventless. Countless falls triggering false alarms, innumerable bruises calling for Dettol and Soframycin and scars that serve as battle wounds till today were a part of the process. But then, a priceless skill was learnt.

Raj handstand

The handstand is a skill the demands practice, patience and common sense

This holds true for movements too. The first few weeks when you learn a new movement chances are high that you do the movement wrong. You will probably feel the wrong muscles. You may feel excessively sore. You may even strain a muscle or two. But that’s OK! You are learning a skill and you are allowed to fall and, more importantly, learn from it. It is this process of learning from your mistakes that help you move towards mastery. So don’t shy away from it. Don’t lose heart. Don’t freak out. And don’t run around screaming bloody murder. It’s OK. You fell. You will get back up. You may fall again and that’s OK too. It’s only matters that you learn from your mistakes.

At the end of the day, it’s about skills. The more time you invest in learning skills, the more dedicated you are to betterment, the more tools you will possess and the more you can do in life.

It’s about time you stopped exercising!

This might come across as a rude shock to some but no one wandered away and suddenly found themselves on top of Mt. Everest. It took planning, orchestrated effort, progression, dedication and commitment. So is the case with getting fit and looking awesome. If you think you can string a bunch of random exercises together and end up looking like Ryan Reynolds, you couldn’t be away from the truth.

It’s sad but the vast majority of folks today who are fitness minded or are looking to get in shape don’t really know what they hell they’re doing. Eight out of ten people who want to get in shape do “something” fitness related and expect to look like Greek Gods within a few months. This “something” could range from running everyday or spending hours on the treadmill and elliptical machines at their gym or working their abs every other day till the cows go home or attending a yoga class 5 days a week to, the other extreme of, copying what pro-bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger and Cutler do.

If you’re one of these folks, unfortunately, results are going to be so sparse that you are sure to come to the conclusion that you are doing everything possible but no change ever occurs to your physique or performance. This is where I come in and here is what I have to say.

“You have the right idea. You have the drive. You are doing your best. But, are you doing the right thing? In other words, are you exercising or are you training?”

The difference between exercise and training

Why do you think you go to school? Why do you think there are grades and exams and reviews in school? Why not just pick up a few books and start reading randomly? Why do you work at an organization with a structure? Why are the most successful organizations the ones with the best policies and strategies? Why not just walk out into the world and figure out some random way to make a living? Why do you train to get better at an art like dancing or martial arts or painting? Why do you practice the same movements and/or strokes over and over again? Why not just move your limbs the way you want to or draw some random colored lines and hope they make sense?

Success doesn’t work that way. And a transformation from fat to fit or from weak to strong or from unhealthy to healthy doesn’t work that way either.

Exercise is as any activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness. Training, on the other hand, is way more than that.

Training is the act of learning, practicing, analyzing, monitoring and progressing per a plan that is designed taking into consideration the trainee’s current position in the relevant space and future goals. It involves research and structure and testing and commitment and adherence.

It is important to understand that random acts of physical activity, though better than a carefully planned regimen of sitting and eating junk, won’t take you too far. You need a plan. You need to learn to move. You need to learn about how your body reacts to certain foods. You need a nutritional approach. You need to self-experiment. You need to strive to progress. You need to train.

Let’s cut to the chase. What should you do if you ‘really’ want to get in shape? How do you “train”?

7 steps to looking, feeling and functioning absolutely awesome

1. Understand your current situation. Are you obese or overweight? By how much? Do you have a disease you’re fighting against? How stressful is your lifestyle? How good or bad are your food habits? Do you sleep well? How low is your current fitness levels? Can you do the basic moves (squat, bend over and touch the floor, pushup) without discomfort?

2. Make an informed decision about where you want to go. What are your goals? “I want to tone up” or “I want to get fit” will take you nowhere really. Do you want to look like a model? Which one? Are you looking to fix some systemic issues (diabetes, hyper tension etc.,)? Is weight loss all you’re interested in? Are you interested in getting in shape for a particular event be it a marathon or a marriage?

3. Assess time with cognizance. Once you know where you stand and where you want to go, give yourself more than sufficient time. You can’t expect to safely go from 20 kilos overweight to a flat tummy in a few weeks and neither can you safely run a marathon or deadlift double bodyweight within a couple of months. You’d rather do something slowly and surely than to let greed lead you into a world of dreams and disappointments.

4. Make a plan or work with someone who can make one for you. If looking awesome or getting fit is your goal, you don’t have to do much but you need to do the right things. 2-3 days of full body strength training with a day of intense sprinting or light distance running coupled with a wholesome real food based nutrition plan is all you need. But realize that the specifics will change based on the thousand variables that you bring to the table.

5. Train. Stick to the plan. Learn from every training session and from every meal. Incorporate your learnings into the next session and/or meal. Strive to get better every progressing day as opposed to trying to do the same thing over and over again.

6. Monitor your progress closely. Weigh and measure yourself on a weekly basis. If things are not going the way you want them to then something ain’t right. Analyze your findings to figure out what is wrong or talk to your coach about making changes to your plan.

7. Rinse and repeat till you get to your goals.

Yes it sounds painful. And no, there is no magic bullet involved. But this is reality. This is how humans evolved and how the human body functions. Embrace it.

And realize that at the end of the day you won’t cherish the day you reached your goal half as much as you cherish memories of your efforts that led you to the goal. The journey is the reward. The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be. 

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PS: This was an article I originally wrote for The Week’s SmartLife and it was published in their May 2013 edition.

Maybe you just don’t see the point… yet

Light-bulb-moment

A couple of weeks back we had a workout at The Quad that involved running, more running and honestly, not much more than running. Actually, here is the workout.

– Run 100m
– Do 1 burpee
Repeat for as many rounds as possible in 30 minutes.

Now, this is not characteristic of The Quad in anyway. We are all about doing the big moves in a regimented, varied, fun and competitive fashion but this one was different. It was an endurance challenge and everyone had to compete. As I was explaining the workout, I saw faces shrink smaller and smaller and when I said “This is all you’re going to do for 30 minutes and, one way or the other, we’re going to make sure you work for the entire 30 minutes!” most faces turned sour and then sad and then angry!

About 8 minutes into the workout, one of my best, most intense and most dedicated athletes looks at me as he runs and goes “Boring!”. This came as a surprise to me but then I realized that this was one person who said it but we probably had another 100 trainees who thought this at various points of time during the workout. But, being diligent and sincere Quadsters, every single trainee did the entire workout. Some did 30 rounds, while some others did 60 but most of them (except the running enthusiasts) were thoroughly annoyed at the end of the session.

But guess what? We’ll do this challenge again at a later date when it makes sense as a part of the periodized training program. And again.

Why? Because just like there are foods that make you feel great instantly and there are foods that make you healthy in the long run, you understand the point of certain elements of training only after you’ve given it time to rest and sink in.

The number of emails, text messages and in-person comments we received a week after the challenge was amazing!

“I never thought I could ever run for 30 minutes! I was angry at first, but you guys have done it again!”

“Coach! Didn’t realize I sucked so much at running. What should I do to improve?”

“If not for that challenge, I never would’ve even considered running. It was a shocker that I was able to run for 4 kilometers while doing burpees every 100 meters!”

“That endurance challenge made me ask you think – Is my endurance is that bad? Can we work on it please?”

“I was able to run, albeit slowly, for the entire 30 minutes. Do you think you can help me train for the 10k that is coming up in July?”

“I just realized I ran 3 kilometers!”

I can list another 20 quotes, but you get the idea. You need to venture out of your comfort zone and test yourself. Sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised and sometimes rudely shocked. But that is the nature of the game.

It is very common to see people doing what they like and only what they like. Runners run. Lifters lift. Sportsmen play. Cyclists cycle. But fitness is beyond just doing what you like to do or what you’re good at. Fitness is about honing your strengths by conquering your weaknesses. It is about challenging yourself. It is about getting out of your comfort zone and testing yourself in order to understand your true capabilities. Fitness is a mindset. 

Getting out of your comfort zone, challenging yourself, accepting your weakness and rebuilding yourself is not easy. You may not understand it today. You may not benefit from it immediately. You may not enjoy doing it the first time. But trust me – believe, commit and give it all you got and you’ll soon have your Aha moment.

I’m going to end by quoting something someone who I respect plenty said once to me –

“Not everything we do in life needs to have a point. Or maybe, we just don’t see the point… yet.”

What is an ocean but a collection of droplets?

Everyone wants to workout and then not think about health or fitness for the rest of the day. ‘Getting done’ seems to be all the rage now and smart fitness marketers seem to ride the wave pretty well. I’m not one to smartly market BS so I’ll tell you this – sustainable long term fitness results not from workouts you force yourself to do, but from activities that you can’t stop yourself from doing.

Become that person. Park the car slightly away from where you intend to go. Always, and I repeat always, take the stairs and encourage people with you to do the same. Carry your own groceries. Help someone carry something. Lift your luggage instead of rolling it. Take the trash out. Stand for no reason. Walk even when you get the slightest chance. Be greedy for work.

Collect every single droplet of activity that comes your way and you’ll realize that the ocean isn’t as big as you thought it was.

Why your shoes are making you poor and your sports drinks are making you fat.

For those of you who didn’t already know, I write for The Week’s health magazine called Smart Life and the following article appeared in the November 2012 issue. The magazine is pretty cool actually. They are only about a year old and are slowly gaining readership. They have a good collection of articles in each issue and more importantly, an issue editor who cares about the content. Definitely something to check out if you are into magazines.

– – – – – x – – – – –

Keep it sane. Keep it simple. 

Why your shoes are making you poor and your sports drinks are making you fat.

Like a lot of things in life, thanks to smart marketing, we have been misguided into believing that health and fitness depend on external factors like complicated analyses and branded health foods. A list of such marketing gimmicks can be very long, but I’ll discuss today, my top three repeat offenders in any layperson’s fitness life.

  1. Expensive shoes
  2. Body composition analyses
  3. Sports drinks

Shoes

Shoes are awesome. They come in a million color combinations, cost from nothing to everything and can make or break your ‘cool quotient’. But the question here is, are they necessary for training? Yes and no.

If you’re training for performance, be it weight lifting or playing a sport or running or sprinting, shoes become an absolute necessity. But for the general fat loss enthusiast, shoes are nothing more than an(other) expensive buy.

Realize that your feet contain 19 muscles, 107 ligaments, 26 bones and 7000 nerve endings and that they all require activation and/or strengthening in order to optimally perform during long term usage (i.e life). That being the case, it goes without saying that your feet need to be ‘used’ and shoes, with all the padded soles and constraining enclosures, don’t help because they end up over-protecting your feet and end up acting like crutches for your feet.

By living without shoes i.e. walking barefoot at home, training barefoot and gradually increasing intensity etc., you, firstly, strengthen the finer muscle fibers, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue that help keep your feet healthy and, secondly, facilitate better coordination due to improved neuromuscular communication within the body by means of activating the thousands of nerve endings on your feet and toes.

Summing up: Wear shoes. Look cool. But spend enough time barefoot too. Your feet will thank you.  Barefoot shoes like Vibram, Merrell and Innov8 are great options to strengthen your feet while still keeping them protected from sharp objects and high heat. 

Body composition analyses

Anytime anyone joins a new upscale gym, one of the first tests that is done on them is the body composition analysis i.e. determine how much of their body weight is fat, how much is lean mass (muscle, bone etc.) and how much is water.

In a world that believes ‘the more complicated a process is, the better it is!’, such analyses are done using different methods – from very cumbersome acts like hydrodensitometry (underwater weighing) to more technologically advanced and convenient methods like bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA), Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) and Whole Body Gamma Counter (WBD) to more basic methods like skin-fold measurements and Body Mass Index (BMI) calculations.

Though there are multiple methods available today to perform a body composition analysis, there are some inherent flaws in all of them.

  1. Most convenient or easy or basic methods are grossly inaccurate. BIA, BMI and skin-fold methods can show numbers that are anywhere from 5 to 30% away from the real number.
  2. The methods that are fairly accurate are either super cumbersome (like hydrostatic  weighing) or ridiculously expensive for the purpose (like DEXA and WBD).
  3. And most importantly, none of these numbers actually matter for the general fitness enthusiast or even to athletes until they get to the elite level. For someone who is looking to lose fat, the plan of action is to eat right and train smart. Knowing how much percentage of their body weight is fat does nothing with their progress other than encouraging obsessive behavior. In other words, unnecessary stats don’t help.

All this said, I have my own body fat testing apparatus. It is a complex piece of equipment and it provides you with exactly the answer you need to help you move ahead in your journey. I didn’t design it and I don’t get a get if you use it, but I strongly recommend that you purchase and use it.

It is called ‘the mirror’ and it only has one reading – ‘If it jiggles, it is fat’.

Summing up: Save your money and sanity. See yourself in the mirror often and get a picture every week. In a few weeks you’ll be able to clearly say if you’re gaining or losing fat and where. 

Sports drinks

Gatorade and other such sports drinks are a fitness enthusiast’s elixir today because he/she believes that his/her training was intense enough to require special recovery fluids and that consuming a well-branded drink will help achieve his/her goals better and faster.

Unfortunately, a lot of this ‘belief’ is born from the smart marketing that is used to sell these sugary drinks to the common man. While the composition of any sport drink is water, lots of sugar, food coloring, preservatives and additives the marketing emphasizes on the presence of electrolytes. As important as they sound and as important as they are for an intensely performing human body, electrolytes (like sodium, potassium, chloride etc.), are very easily available without sugar, preservatives and additives from whole foods.

Most people get enough sodium and chloride just from salting their food well and more than required amounts of potassium and bicarbonate can be easily obtained by eating bananas or, even better, drinking tender coconut water. For example, while a 1 liter of Gatorate Rain provides you with 120mg of potassium (along with 56grams of sugar!), one serving of tender coconut water can nourish you with approximately 250mg of potassium.

The fact is that recovery drinks do help, but only when training at an extremely high level of intensity. I (and many of my fat-loss and performance seeking clients) have been training intensely for many years now, and not once have I found the need to even sip on a sport drink or recommend one to my clients.

Summing up: Quit drinking sugary colored fluids irrespective of whether they have a ‘healthy’ marketing label associated with them or not. Choose whole real foods. A good diet will, by design, provide you with the required amount of electrolytes to satisfy your body’s needs. 

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